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Senate Approves New START
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Tom Z. Collina

Capping an eight-month-long process and eight days of often intense floor debate, the U.S. Senate voted 71-26 on Dec. 22 to provide its advice and consent to ratification of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). All 56 Democratic senators, the Senate’s two independents, and 13 Republicans voted to support the treaty, exceeding the two-thirds majority required.

The vote paves the way for Russian ratification and the treaty’s entry into force. The lower chamber of Russia’s parliament voted 350-58 in support of New START Dec. 24, but final approval is not expected until January or later. On-site inspections under the treaty could begin two months after that.

President Barack Obama, who fought a high-profile battle with Senate Republican leaders to hold a vote in the postelection session rather than wait until 2011, told reporters after the vote that the treaty will reduce superpower nuclear arsenals and “advance our relationship with Russia, which is essential to making progress on a host of challenges, from enforcing strong sanctions on Iran to preventing nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists.” Obama also said the treaty will enhance U.S. leadership to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and seek a world without them.

New START would lower treaty limits on both sides’ deployed strategic warheads by about 30 percent and resume verification that lapsed when the original 1991 START expired in December 2009. The new treaty would supersede the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), which is still in force and mandates reductions of deployed strategic warheads to no more than 2,200 by 2012, but provides no verification mechanism. New START caps each country’s deployed strategic warheads at 1,550 and deployed nuclear-capable delivery systems at 700 over the next decade. Under the treaty, both sides will have to take hundreds of nuclear warheads out of deployment within seven years of its entry into force.

Like previous bilateral arms control agreements, New START received broad support. Backers included U.S. military leaders and national security officials from preceding Republican administrations, including former President George H.W. Bush and six former secretaries of state: Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Lawrence Eagleburger, James A. Baker, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice.

New START was approved despite the active opposition of the Senate’s two top Republicans, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.). In addition, many potential 2012 Republican presidential candidates, including former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and Sen. John Thune (S.D.), came out against it.

The opposition was based on process as well as substance. As McConnell explained on the Senate floor Dec. 21, “[A] decision of this magnitude should not be decided under the pressure of a deadline.” Some Republican senators said the treaty should not be debated in a postelection session at all, and others wanted the Democrats to shelve plans for votes on more partisan issues such as the DREAM Act, which deals with immigration policy, and repeal of the Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gay and lesbian service members. On substance, McConnell said the treaty “does nothing to significantly reduce the Russian Federation’s stockpile of strategic arms, ignores the thousands of tactical weapons in the Russian arsenal, and contains an important concession linking missile defense to the strategic arms.” Opponents also said the treaty was unverifiable, questioned the administration’s commitment to modernization of the nuclear stockpile, and expressed concern that New START would be the first step on the road to the elimination of nuclear weapons.

As a result, the treaty did not pass by as wide a margin as previous agreements, such as President George W. Bush’s SORT, which was approved 95-0.

Predicting that the heightened partisanship in the Senate would not allow a large margin of victory for New START, Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) told reporters Dec. 21, “70 votes is yesterday’s 95.” He made the comment after a procedural vote that indicated the likely level of support.

Courting Kyl

The Dec. 22 ratification vote ended a high-stakes political battle pitting the Obama administration and its Senate allies against Senate Republican leaders. After months of debate, including more than 20 Senate hearings and briefings, the outcome was in doubt until just days before the vote.

The treaty, which Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed on April 8 in Prague, was formally submitted to the Senate May 13. The administration’s Senate strategy, led by Vice President Joe Biden, initially sought to avoid a partisan fight by courting the Republican leadership’s support for the treaty. Biden and his staff had numerous discussions with Kyl on the issue of funding for modernizing the nuclear weapons production complex. According to a Nov. 17 White House timeline, administration officials met or talked with Kyl or his staff about the treaty at least 30 times since August 2009.

Kyl made it clear early on that his position on New START would hinge on the administration’s ability to convince him that the budget for the nuclear weapons complex was adequate.

In a clear attempt to satisfy Kyl, the administration pledged in May to increase funding for the weapons complex by $10 billion over 10 years, leading many to expect that Kyl would ultimately support the treaty or at least not actively oppose it.

Before November, according to administration officials, it was unclear whether Kyl’s support for the treaty was a real possibility or if he actually was seeking to block ratification or delay a vote until 2011. Kyl led the successful campaign to block ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1999. But in the Nov. 2 elections, Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives and picked up six seats in the Senate.

Kyl announced on Nov. 16 that he “did not think” the treaty could be completed in the postelection session given the “complex and unresolved issues related to START and modernization.” (See ACT, December 2010.) The announcement came just after senior administration officials had flown to Arizona Nov. 12 to meet with Kyl and his staff to pledge an additional $4.1 billion for weapons complex modernization. Based on that meeting, senior officials said they thought they had a deal to bring the treaty up for a vote.

Kyl’s Nov. 16 statement marked a critical turning point and showed that after the elections, “the price for New START just went up,” a Senate staffer told Arms Control Today. The Kyl announcement “was one of the lowest moments of our time in government,” a senior administration official told The Washington Post Dec 23.

“A Gutsy Choice”

The next 24 hours were pivotal to the ratification effort. Obama had to choose between waging a high-profile, uncertain campaign to win the treaty without Kyl’s support or delay the vote until the next Congress. The administration and its Senate allies said that delaying the vote could put off ratification of the treaty by six to 12 months or more.

In addition to facing more, potentially hostile Republican votes, the treaty would have had to be reapproved by the Foreign Relations Committee, whose new members could have requested new hearings. “Endless hearings, markup, back to trying to get some time on the floor…[i]t will be some time before the treaty is ever heard from again,” Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the committee’s ranking member, told The Cable Nov. 17.

On the other hand, given Kyl’s presumed authority within his caucus, for the White House to win a ratification vote without Kyl’s support was seen at the time by observers inside and outside of the administration as a daunting and uncertain prospect. Treaty supporters needed at least nine Republican votes, in addition to the 56 Democrats and two independents, to reach the 67 required for Senate approval. The day after Kyl’s announcement, the administration decided to double down on its campaign to secure the votes it needed without Kyl’s help. “This is not a matter that can be delayed,” Obama told reporters Nov. 18 while flanked by a group of Republican former national security officials, including Baker, Kissinger, and former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft. “Every month that goes by without a treaty means that we are not able to verify what’s going on on the ground in Russia,” he said.

“The president made a gutsy choice,” Kerry told The Washington Post Dec. 23. “He decided he was prepared to lose the treaty, but he thought it was important to fight for,” Kerry said.

Floor Debate Begins

When it resumed work Nov. 29 after its Thanksgiving break, the Senate spent the next two weeks debating tax policy and other issues and did not begin debate on New START until mid-December. At that point, the only Republican senators who had announced support for the treaty were Lugar, Olympia Snowe (Maine), and Susan Collins (Maine).

With a key procedural vote expected the next day, Kyl tried to delay debate on New START by arguing that it would force the Senate to work through Christmas. “It is impossible to do all of the things that the majority leader laid out ... without disrespecting one of the two holiest of holidays for Christians and the families of all of the Senate, not just the senators themselves but all of the staff,” he told reporters Dec. 14.

An exasperated Biden took issue with Kyl’s reluctance to work through Christmas. “Don’t tell me about Christmas. I understand Christmas. I was a senator for a long time, and I’ve been there many years where we go right up to Christmas,” Biden told MSNBC Dec. 15. “There’s 10 days between now and Christmas. I hope I don’t get in the way of your Christmas shopping, but this is the nation’s business. This is the national security at stake. Act.”

Other commentators said that if the U.S. military could work through the holidays, with troops deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, senators could spend more time in Washington.

To begin floor debate on New START, the Senate had to pass a “motion to proceed” by majority vote. This was the first real test of Republican support for the treaty, as well as the first test of how far opponents would go to block a vote. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) told Fox News Dec. 15 that, to delay the process, he would demand that the entire treaty text be read aloud. “If they bring this up, they’re going to read it. And it’ll take them a day and a half or two to read this. Again, we’re trying to run out the clock,” DeMint said.

In response, the White House issued a press statement Dec. 15 that said, “It is the height of hypocrisy to complain that there is not enough time to consider this Treaty, while wasting so much time reading aloud a document that was submitted to the Senate months ago.”

In a victory for treaty proponents, the Senate voted 66-32 to begin debate on New START, with nine Republicans in support. Although the measure required only a simple majority to pass, the tally was important because it suggested that the treaty had the two-thirds majority needed for approval. Moreover, the Republican leadership decided not to ask for the treaty to be read aloud. Momentum was growing, but how senators voted on a procedural issue was not a guarantee of how they would vote on the treaty itself.

Debate on the treaty continued for two days before the first amendments to the treaty were filed. The Senate spent the next few days debating a series of Republican amendments dealing with missile defense, verification, and tactical, or short-range, nuclear weapons. All of them were rejected, as treaty supporters successfully made the case that they were unnecessary and that any changes to the treaty text itself would kill the agreement because such changes would have to be approved by Russia.

The first amendment, offered by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), would have removed a paragraph from the treaty’s preamble that recognized “the existence of the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms,” which some senators were concerned could limit U.S. missile defense options. The amendment was defeated 59-37 Dec. 18. Other amendments followed, from Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) on including tactical nuclear weapons in the treaty, from Thune on increasing the allowed number of delivery vehicles from 700 to 720, from James Inhofe (R-Okla.) on increasing the number of on-site inspections, and from Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) defining rail-mobile missiles. All failed by margins similar to the one on McCain’s. There was never a real chance these amendments would pass, as only a simple majority was needed to defeat them.

The battle lines were drawn the week of the vote, when McConnell and Kyl declared their opposition to the treaty. Asked on Fox News Dec. 19 if he would oppose the treaty, Kyl said “Absolutely, yes. This treaty needs to be fixed. And we are not going to have the time to do that in the bifurcated way or trifurcated way that we’re dealing with it here, with other issues being parachuted in all the time.” McConnell said on the Senate floor Dec. 20, “Our top concern should be the safety and security of our nation, not some politician’s desire to declare a political victory and host a press conference before the first of the year.”

Just two days before the vote, the outcome was still uncertain, with only a handful of Republican senators, now including Scott Brown (Mass.), openly supporting the treaty.

On Dec. 20, Kerry released a letter from Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen stating that New START is “vital to U.S. national security” and that “the sooner it is ratified, the better.” Supporters of the treaty highlighted the letter to make the point that, for Republicans to oppose New START, they would have to oppose the U.S. military as well.

The same day, Scowcroft told ABC News, “I just don’t understand the opposition” and that “to play politics with what is in the fundamental national interest is pretty scary stuff.”

“A Dismaying Rout”

After six days of debate on the treaty and with Christmas on the horizon, the tide began to shift Dec. 21. That morning, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates released a statement saying, “I strongly support the Senate voting to give its advice and consent to ratification of the New START Treaty this week.” Then, additional support began to emerge after Republican Conference Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) announced he would vote for the treaty. Alexander, the third-ranking Senate Republican, said New START “leaves our country with enough nuclear warheads to blow any attacker to Kingdom Come.”

Alexander’s endorsement was followed quickly by Republican Sens. Bob Corker (Tenn.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), George Voinovich (Ohio), Johnny Isakson (Ga.), and Robert Bennett (Utah), providing more than enough Republican support to pass the treaty.

Corker, a key Republican swing vote, said on the Senate floor, “I firmly believe that…ratifying this treaty, and that all the things we have done over the course of time as a result of this treaty are in our country’s national interest, and I am here today to state my full support for this treaty.”

By late morning, the National Review, a conservative journal, declared that “Republican opposition to New START is collapsing” and predicted that the vote for ratification could go as high as 75. The Review said, “At least Jon Kyl was able to get more money for modernization and that letter from President Obama making assurances on missile defense. Otherwise, this is a dismaying rout.”

The article was referring to a Dec. 18 letter from Obama to McConnell in response to Republican concerns that, out of deference to Russia, Obama might not deploy all four phases of U.S. missile defense plans for NATO. Obama assured McConnell that the administration would deploy all four phases of the Phased Adaptive Approach to missile defense in Europe. “I will take every action available to me to support the deployment of all four phases,” wrote Obama.

In a key step to ratification and a reflection of the growing bipartisan support, late on Dec. 21 the Senate voted 67-28, with the support of 11 Republicans, to invoke cloture, leading to the end of debate and a final vote on New START the next day. The cloture vote made it clear that New START would pass; the only real remaining question was how many Republicans would vote for it.

Nevertheless, Kyl continued to question the outcome. “I honestly don’t know what all of my colleagues are going to do,” Kyl said at a Dec. 21 press conference after the cloture vote. “We believe this process has not enabled us to consider this treaty in the serious way it should have been considered. I hope a lot of our colleagues would agree with that.”

Appearing with Kyl, DeMint, who opposed the treaty in the Foreign Relations Committee, said, “It’s clear with this treaty that [the administration is] trying to cram something down the throats of the American people under the cover of Christmas…. They’re not looking at politics right now, they’re celebrating their holy Christmas holiday, and the fact that we’re doing this under the cover of Christmas … is something to be outraged about.”

Final Vote

After the Dec. 21 cloture vote, the Senate had a maximum of 30 hours to consider any remaining amendments.

Unable to alter the treaty text, Republicans began to offer amendments to the resolution of advice and consent, which had passed the Foreign Relations Committee Sept. 16. (See ACT, October 2010.) Changes to the resolution would not alter the treaty itself and thus had a chance to pass. Four such amendments were ultimately accepted by voice vote, after being modified.

Two amendments by Kyl sought to accelerate funding for modernizing the weapons complex and ensure modernization of nuclear delivery systems. Another amendment, by Sens. McCain, Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), and Corker sought assurances that Obama would deploy all four phases of the phased approach to missile defense in Europe. An amendment by Sen. George LeMieux (R-Fla.) stated that prior to the entry into force of New START, the president must certify that he will seek negotiations with Russia within one year of entry into force “to secure and reduce tactical nuclear weapons in a verifiable manner.” The LeMieux amendment may prove particularly significant as it represents a Republican endorsement of tactical arms reduction talks with Russia.

There was speculation that if his amendment were accepted, McCain would vote for the treaty and bring another three or four Republican votes with him. Although his amendment was approved, McCain voted “no” on final passage. The treaty ultimately won the support of 56 Democrats, 13 Republicans, and the two independents.

Biden, in his role as president of the Senate, took the rare step of presiding personally over the vote, reflecting the treaty’s symbolic importance for Obama’s presidency. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton—like Biden, a former senator—was on the Senate floor as well.

After the vote, Kerry, who led the floor fight for the treaty, said the vote will reduce the risk of nuclear catastrophe. “The winners are not defined by party or ideology,” he said. “The winners are the American people, who are safer with fewer Russian missiles aimed at them.”

Kyl denounced the Senate’s refusal to amend the treaty, even though it accepted some of his changes to the resolution. “The precedent here that we’re establishing is that the Senate really is a rubber stamp,” he said. “Whatever a president negotiates with the Russians or somebody else we dare not change because otherwise it will have to be renegotiated to some great detriment to humanity.”

But in the end, Kyl could convince only 26 of the 39 Republicans who voted on the treaty to vote with him. Corker told The New York Times Dec. 22, “There’s no question in my mind that this [treaty] is in our country’s national security interest.” The vote on New START “is not one of those votes where you wonder,” he said. “This is not even a close call.”

In addition to Corker, the Republican senators voting for the treaty Dec. 22 were Alexander, Bennett, Brown, Thad Cochran (Miss.), Collins, Judd Gregg (N.H.), Isakson, Mike Johanns (Neb.), Lugar, Murkowski, Snowe, and Voinovich.

Next Steps

Once the United States and Russia exchange instruments of ratification and the treaty formally enters into force, the two sides have 60 days to prepare for the first on-site inspections under New START. Within 45 days of entry into force, the two sides are to exchange data on the current status and deployment locations of strategic nuclear forces, consisting of intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and heavy bombers. Inspections could begin by April.

Referring to the LeMieux amendment on tactical weapons, Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification and Compliance Rose Gottemoeller said in a conference call with reporters after the vote, “The Russians have a larger number than we do of these systems, and there has been some particular, I would say strong, urging from Capital Hill that we move out” and seek an agreement with Russia to reduce these forces. Gottemoeller noted that Obama has said that the next step after New START would be a treaty that would address tactical nuclear weapons, as well as strategic and nondeployed weapons.

The Obama administration intends to “carry out the requirements of the [U.S. ratification] resolution by seeking to initiate negotiations with Russia on tactical nukes within one year of New START’s entry into force,” White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said following the Senate’s vote.

In a Dec. 21 interview in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Gary Samore, White House coordinator for arms control and nonproliferation, said that multilateral negotiations to ban fissile material production for weapons and Senate ratification of the CTBT are on his agenda. The United States is “trying to reinstate negotiations [on the fissile material treaty] at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva and will launch an initiative next year,” he said. On the CTBT, Samore said, “We will present our arguments next year, but we do not know if they will have the desired effect.”


Posted: January 10, 2011